Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Object Relations and Organization Theory

In my work is a therapist, I noticed that my clients, through interaction with me, were able to ascribe different or new kinds of meaning to the events that occurred to them or the thoughts and feelings that they had.  In psychotherapy, this making of meaning through interaction is often looked at through the concept of object relations. This idea of “object relations” is so powerful, that a school of theory and therapy has been developed to expand and apply it.

Object Relations Theory was originated in England by a group of British psychoanalysts, including Klein, Balint, Fairburn, Winnicott, and Guntrip.  In Freud’s  psychoanalytic model, he  held  that  a  newborn  infant  is  driven  by  basic instincts,  such as hunger, thirst, and pleasure, but cannot relate to others. Relationships with others only develop later in the course of satisfying those primal needs. In this sense, Freud's model considers relationships to be secondary.

In contrast, object relations theory maintains that the infant must relate to others at a very early age and that relationships with others are, therefore, primary.  The drive to attach oneself to an object is considered to be the major motivating force.

In both classic psychoanalytic (Freudian) and object relations theories, the word object is used with a very specific meaning. It's not literally a physical person, but an internal mental structure that is formed throughout early development.   This mental structure is built through a series of interactions with other people through a psychic process called introjection.  Because an infant's earliest experiences are usually with its mother, she is usually the first internal object formed by the infant.   Eventually, the father and other significant people also become internalized objects (Fox, 1996).
The act of internalizing (introjecting) external objects is important as a mechanism for establishing symbolic value and meaning of an object. In my therapy practice, I knew that the process of introjection was taking place when my client would come into the session and talk about a situation and state “and then I ask myself, what would Scott say to me in this situation?”  At that point, this person acted as if I were there, even though I wasn't.  How does this effect people in organizations?.

In the early 1980s, Seattle hired a new chief of police, a New York City police captain named Robert Fitzsimons.  A story related in the Seattle Times newspaper speaks directly to the phenomenon of how people engage in social interaction in the absence of other people.  The story describes how, on a Sunday morning, Fitzsimons is finishing his interview with the mayor of Seattle.  Outside it is raining (big surprise), and as he looks out the window down to the streets he sees a person standing on the corner waiting for the light to change, in the rain, even though there are no cars coming.  On seeing this, Fitzsimons turns to the mayor and says:  “I’ll take the job”. Compared to his experience in New York City, the new police chief saw that the average Seattleite gave the “don't walk” sign on the street corner a lot more value and meaning than the average New Yorker!

Symbolic value and meaning define an organization, in the minds of the  members of that organization, as well as those outside of it. The polarization of the political parties (Republicans and Democrats) are a perfect example of this. As a member of the opposing group, one may wonder how the "other" group can have gotten things so totally wrong. However, if we look at the ways the members of each organization have introjected the messages put forward, we can see how those messages (repeated often enough) become fixed beliefs.

Aronson, E., Wilson, T. D., & Akert, R. M. (2002). Social Psychology (4th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Boeree, C.G. (1999) Introduction to Social Psychology, http://www.ship.edu/~cgboeree/person/precept.html 
Deaux, K & Wrightsman, L.S. (1988). Social Psychology. Brooks/Cole Publishing, Pacific Grove CA
 Fox, H. (1996). “Projective Identification” http://www.object-relations.com/papers.html